Lady Hornet seniors go out as winners in defeat
HERSHEY — The heartbreak in Hershey’s Giant Center on Tuesday was real.
There wasn’t one person wearing green in the building who did not believe Juniata Valley was on its way to winning the PIAA Class 1A girls basketball state championship after it took a nine-point lead with less than four minutes to play in regulation.
That belief in the girls from a small school in Alexandria was put there on the backs of a senior class that changed the culture of the program.
“We’ve had so many memories, and I love them all so much,” Juniata Valley senior point guard Taylor Leidy said. “Probably my biggest memory was beating Bishop Carroll last year, because no one believed in us except ourselves. We proved to everyone we were good enough to make it this far.”
This year Leidy, Maddie Mattas and Sydney Reed continued to help the Lady Hornets prove themselves.
Although the final score of Tuesday’s game will always read 51-46 Jenkintown in overtime, anyone at the game knows these girls had what it takes to be state champions.
A disaster scenario of Halee Smith getting into foul trouble and then getting injured combined with a desperate Jenkintown press that was allowed to be extremely physical got Juniata Valley into trouble.
Even with all that, the Lady Drakes still needed a final-possession 3-pointer to force overtime.
“We talked about how we should still be proud of our season,” Reed said. “We worked so hard to get back here, and that’s something. We can’t be disappointed in ourselves. We have to hold our heads high, because not everybody goes to the state finals in back-to-back years.”
Reed improved her offensive game more than any player in recent memory during the last couple months of her senior year.
Her patented scoop shot got her to the free throw line eight times, and she made seven of those. She’s always had her 3-pointer, and her second one in a span of a minute in the fourth quarter had her teammates believing they were on their way to clutching the gold ball.
“We were feeling great,” Smith, a sophomore, said. “We almost felt like we had it right there.”
A year ago, it was Mattas whose big game against Bishop Carroll propelled the Lady Hornets into the state title game.
And through it all, their vocal and emotional leader has been Leidy, who roared and pumped her fists one final time when her layup with 41 seconds left in overtime brought Juniata Valley within one point.
“This really sucks right now, but the pain will go away with time,” Leidy said. “The memories will remain.”
Though Smith may be the most individually talented player on the Lady Hornets, she was quick to point out things will not be the same without her teammates.
“We’re losing three great senior starters,” Smith said. “We’re going to have to work so hard in the offseason to replace what we’re losing.”
When asked what the senior class meant to her, Juniata Valley coach Rachelle Hopsicker began to tear up.
They are amazing, each one of them,” Hopsicker said. “They are all more than just basketball players. Tomorrow they are doing a Special Olympics fundraiser. They’ll be successful in life. We’ll all take these memories with us forever.”
As the pain of Tuesday’s loss fades, memories of the first District 6 girls basketball championship and back-to-back appearances in the state championship game will remain.
“We’re going to go home, and we know with our community, we’re still winners,” Hopsicker said. “We feel like champions. That’s what we’re going to take with us.”
Michael Boytim can be reached at mboytim@altoo amirror.com or at 946-7521